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Noel Coward and Jack Knott, Iraq 1943


RAF Habbanya, Iraq, 1943.

There is a photo in my possession where my father is sweltering in 130 degrees heat.  This is the RAF station at Habbaniya.  When he stepped out of the aircraft there, Noel Coward thought it like ‘stepping into a blast furnace’.  The day Noel entertained the men at Habbaniya, ‘my father must have been sitting in the audience; I can see him resolutely unmoved and the entertainer with a smile welded to his face, streaming with sweat, that clipped voice singing about an England that my father would only dimly have recognised.’

‘The routine of life in this distant outpost of Empire was lifted by such visitors passing through: politicians and comedians, soldiers and singers, either on their way to somewhere else, or there to make ‘Have a Banana’ – Habbaniya – seem that little bit closer to home.  Jack saw two TUC members en route to Moscow (he disapproved); Eden and Mountbatten (the kind of aristocrats whose sleek hair and well-cut clothes Jack sought to emulate and always felt marked out a man for great things); and the entertainers – Jack Benny (too slick); Larry Adler (not bad); Winnie Shaw (‘Boy what a girl she was!’);and Noël Coward (not really Jack’s sort of thing .)

Two extracts from chapter 10 of ‘Posted in Wartime‘.

 

 

Jack of Arabia: why the secrecy?


The original title of ‘Posted in Wartime’ was Jack of Arabia.  Jack, my father, served in the RAF during World War 2 but carefully avoided talking about his experiences during the four years he was overseas.  After he died I wanted to explore where he went and why he was so secretive about it.  There was a further mystery: was my father actually back in England in time after the war to be my father?!   That was where the book began.  He left no letters at all (although a lot of photographs) and when I was given two extensive sets of letters written by others who had spent much time abroad, I decided to write a book which related their lives to my father’s, their sustained correspondence with his silence. Soon after I became intrigued about how the lives of celebrated exiles – like Noel Coward, Cecil Beaton and Freya Stark – compared.  The book stitches the six of them together, uncovering in the process some unexpected connections.  For example, there was the day midway through the war when my father and Noel Coward’s paths crossed…

Journey Among Warriors


Journey Among Warriors by Eve Curie

This is the first of an occasional series of book reviews, the focus of which is books that are have faded into undeserved obscurity….

She was the only woman for some three hundred miles in each direction, having arrived in the Libyan desert with Winston’s son, Major Randolph Churchill. It was November 1941. For many miles there was scarcely a bush to crouch behind and when the elegant Mademoiselle Curie needed to answer the call of nature, she had to be driven to an empty patch of desert four miles away. Randolph Churchill, playing the discreet gentleman, turned his back. Eve Curie – daughter of Marie, the discoverer of radium − was a correspondent for the New York Herald Tribune and reading about her as she sat in the north African sunshine hammering away at the typewriter keys, dressed in slacks and a snood, I began to fall under her spell. I imagined the fragrance of French perfume amidst the diesel fumes and dust.

I like to think I would have set out on such a journey with her kind of eagerness, but the truth is that, while I like travelling itself well enough once embarked, I am increasingly reluctant to leave the comforts of home. Eve Curie, by contrast set out from America with a spring in her step, despite the fact that she, a Frenchwoman, was tasked with writing dispatches directly in English for the first time. She packed with markedly more enthusiasm than I do: limited by Pan American Airways to forty-four pounds of luggage in weight, her clunky typewriter, assorted documents and heavy French-English dictionary reduced the allowance to just 29. She packed woollen stockings and underwear for Russia and lightweight gear for the tropics. Woollen slacks and a snood – no hat.

So it was that she sat expectantly on a Pan-Am flying boat in New York harbour on Monday 10 November 1941, waiting for the dawn and take-off. As well as writing a series of despatches from across the world at war, she was also charged with attempting to write her first book in English. Her only other venture into writing a book was a biography of her famous mother and that, Madame Curie, was written in French before the war. Journey Among Warriors – her account of her war correspondent’s life − was also to be her last book, although she lived to a great age. Born in Paris in 1904, Eve Curie died, in New York, in 2007.

Journey Among Warriors is a reassuring presence by my side as I write this. Published in 1943, it is long (522 pages of paper as thin as toilet tissue). The index, mostly of names and places, runs to 18 pages. I read it travelling to Istanbul by train: as we rattled across the Hungarian plain, horses and carts shambling through a flat landscape under an untroubled sky, she was sharing with me a much more intrepid journey. A sombre-coloured map in the inside boards of the book plots her route: west Africa, Cairo, Beirut, Baghdad, Teheran, Moscow, Delhi, Calcutta, Rangoon, Chungking – and eventually back again in the spring of 1942.

It is evident that Marie Curie’s reputation is a passport that opens many doors. Eve notes at one point that ‘the name of Curie had helped me in my work’, a fact which didn’t always please her rival correspondents. She was ‘treated by the Russians,’ she quoted one of them as saying, ‘like the Crown Princess.’ In India, for example, she met Gandhi, Nehru, General Wavell, among others; in Russia she visited Tolstoy’s house with a descendant of the great Russian writer. Later, Eve Curie would joke that she was the only one of her immediate family of five who was not awarded the Nobel Prize. She is, nonetheless, a writer who can make you feel that you are travelling with her, sharing the discomforts and danger. She is good on landscape, never failing to describe what she sees from an aircraft window: flying over the Egyptian desert she noted that the lower valley of the Nile ‘was miraculous fertility versus dry desert – it was life versus death’. Flying in a BOAC flying boat from Dubai she describes ‘the translucent Arabian Sea…tinted with colours so magnificent that they seemed false and treacherous, as if they contained poison.’ Over Burma she is uplifted by the sight of the Lashio plateau, surrounded by a circle of hills: ‘it was so beautiful,’ Eve thought, ‘that I felt like staying there all my life… We landed on an airfield of dark, red earth, which looked like dried blood.’

In Russia, she shows early signs of frostbite and her Red Army minder, Lieutenant Liuba Meston, demands that she rub her nose with wool and snow immediately – ‘until it becomes red, until it hurts’. Eve recognises that Liuba would be most anxious she didn’t leave Mother Russia ‘minus my nose’. It is deep in a bleak midwinter, a time so cold that an old lady Eve meets can smile at the prospect of what she calls ‘a real Russian winter. A winter to freeze Russia’s enemies. A winter to freeze Hitler.’

The Russian section of the book is both heart-warming (the indomitable spirit of the nation) and chilling (the bitter Russian winter and the sheer effort of staying alive) and it makes compelling reading. Conditions are tough: the Grand Hotel in Kuybyshev is anything but grand, with the heating not working. Eve puts on ‘an additional sweater’ and sits down at the typewriter at the table, trying to ignore ‘the innumerable stains on the old tablecloth …the noise of the radios, the banging of the doors… the quarrels, the yelling, laughing…’ and the overpowering smell. Flying to Moscow is a spartan experience: ‘the metal seat was cold. The window, dimmed by frost, was cold. Our teeth became cold whenever we spoke, and our frozen breath looked like white steam.’ Opposite is a Russian officer whose ‘jaws were actually shaking’. Eve realised that ‘the Russians were cold too’.

Later, she visits the room where Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina and finds that it had been used until recently as a mess hall by German officers. The windows were broken and stuffed with straw. Elsewhere in the house there were rooms that showed the Germans had tried to set the iconic building alight. Nearby, grouped around the writer’s tomb, were 83 German graves half buried by snow: ‘The Reich’s soldiers certainly have deserved to be buried close to Leo Tolstoy’ was one German officer’s view when objections were made. A large wooden marker declared that the men had ‘gefallen für Grösser Deutschland’ – ‘They fell for Greater Germany’.

There is an intensity about Eve Curie’s work; you feel that the pain of France’s ignominious defeat in 1940 drives her on. She is the first woman to be taken to the Libyan front. She comes down with ‘malignant malaria’ caught in Nigeria; interviews German POWs on the Russian front, and is advised to keep her distance because of lice; she drives towards Rangoon as the Japanese are closing in on the Burmese city. She interviews at the drop of the hat she doesn’t have: Air Marshals, Ministers of State, Hurricane pilots in the desert, ambassadors, Free French commanders, Polish generals, the Shah of Iran, ‘the second best ballerina’ in the USSR, groups of refugees, Chou En-Lai and Chiang Kai-shek in China. In India she asks a secretary for an interview with Gandhi and is surprised to be asked, ‘Can you walk?’ It seemed an odd question: ‘I answered, however, affirmatively. Without any question I could walk. I had, in fact, been walking for years.’ In the event it transpired that ‘Mr Gandhi will take his daily walk with you tomorrow morning at seven.’

To many, the gender of the New York Herald Tribune’s special correspondent was a shock. In Kyaikto, Burma, a young English lieutenant stared at Eve ‘in bewilderment and distress. He whispered: “Now, let’s put this straight. We were expecting from Rangoon, Captain Nyar and the war correspondent for the Herald Tribune and Allied Newspapers Ltd. What happened to the chap?”’ Eve enjoyed revealing that she was ‘the chap’. In reading Journey Among Warriors we are never allowed to forget that the writer is a woman, and a glamorous and exceptional one at that: in photographs she has that quality that singles out the truly beautiful – she looks different each time, but always exudes an air of resilient, striking self-possession. Early in her journey, in Darfur, having been invited to dine at the Residency, she worries that she ‘had no iron to press my evening dress (and no shoes or bag to wear with it, anyway.)’ The further she travels, however, the less exercised she is about her clothes: invited to the High Commissioner for Palestine’s Residence in Jerusalem, she looked at ‘the women in elaborate evening dresses, the men in black ties.’ She, on the other hand ‘wore my all-purpose checked suit that was abominably wrinkled and covered with dust.’ The cold she had caught had made her face swell and reddened her nose. No doubt, despite the apparent handicaps of streaming nose and crushed dress, she was a fascinating figure, listening intently to those who merited it and talking from a widening experience of the war she was following across the world.

I happened on Eve Curie by chance when I was researching the desert war. That research involved reading a series of accounts by male war correspondents, each one heavy with descriptions of shellfire, tanks, army manoeuvres, and constant frantic journeys across the sands of Libya. Eve Curie provides something quite different. For a start, there is a clear sense of sustained purpose in her travelling – she is not engaged in a hectic chase in the wake of dusty army convoys wandering hither and thither across the desert; Eve Curie’s itinerary was methodical and considered, and it gave a unique perspective on the war in the Middle East, Russia and Asia. While she was away, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the World War became truly global. The Frenchwoman that she was grieved over the events of 1940, while her adopted American side gleaned hope from the resistance of the Russians, Chinese and British. Her book ends with a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: ‘it was for us, the living, to be dedicated to the unfinished work which they who fought had thus far so nobly advanced.’

I took Journey Among Warriors with me on my rail journey to Turkey, confident that she would prove a good friend crossing borders at midnight and walking through the cities of eastern Europe. I’ve always warmed to female travel companions – Freya Stark and Gertrude Bell spring to mind. Eve Curie, however, was different. She never wrote another book over the next 65 years of her life. Her life thereafter was not a literary one – my heart sank when I realised that there were no other books of hers to turn to. Her first occupation was as a concert pianist − strangely you get little sense of a musical background in her writing. In the latter stages of the war she was active in the Free French Army. Thereafter she worked for the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and UNICEF.

What she wanted to say to the world was confined to her loving biography of her mother and her painstaking, detailed, opinionated, evocative and spirited account of a year of wartime travel in distant lands. The warriors amongst whom she journeyed would have recognised her energy, sharp intellect and warm heart, and been stirred by her presence. Later, those who read her book of wartime travels would have realised that she was a woman who could write with passion and honesty and who had the brightest of literary futures, but who chose to set out on a different journey.

RICHARD KNOTT’s admiration for war correspondents stretches from Alan Moorehead to Marie Colvin. He is only too aware of how such a life was not for him. His most recent books are The Sketchbook War (about the wartime experiences of a group of war artists and the plan to keep them alive), and The Trio about three famous war correspondents.

Richard Knott


Richard Knott has been an actor (with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Youth Theatre), a teacher and management consultant.  He now lives near Bristol, the city where he grew up.  Previous homes include the Spanish Basque country and Yorkshire where he lived for nearly 25 years.  His move back to the West Country was because he could no longer resist the lure of his precious football team, Bristol Rovers FC (the Mighty Gas).

Richard’s most recent book is ‘The Trio’ (The History Press, 2015), about three famous war correspondents of World War 2 – Alan Moorehead, Christopher Buckley and Alexander Clifford.  Other books include ‘The Sketchbook War’ (The History Press); ‘Black Night for Bomber Command’ (Pen & Sword); and ‘Flying Boats of the Empire’ (Robert Hale).  His books are meticulously researched, as well as savouring character, location and narrative, legacies of his earlier novel-writing ambition.  That is something to which he may return…

‘What’s An Artist Doing Here?’


 

 ‘Oh, but you should be an artist,’ says a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, ‘I had one with my squadron during the last war, for weeks – until we went up the line.’  The implication is that war artists were reluctant to put themselves in danger.  In fact, in both wars, artists sought to convey the reality of war and inevitably that meant getting close to it.  In the 1914-1918 war, the artist Paul Nash (who was to be a war artist in both conflicts) was determined to get ‘as near to the real places of action as it was possible to go.’   He was not the exception.  Artists recognised the need to draw the war as truly as possible: Anthony Gross, for example, in 1940, wrote to Eric Kennington declaring that he wanted ‘to get to France by some way or other and paint in and behind the lines there.’     

 

Being close to the action however had its problems: artists soon realised that the most intense moments of danger were the most impossible to sketch.  If the shells were flying you kept your head down, and the  sketchbook was temporarily discarded.  Modern warfare also provided a challenge for the artist: tank battles in the desert, for example, took place over huge distances, making their depiction very problematic.

 

Then there was the issue of censorship.  For example, the artist Eric Ravilious was reminded on appointment in January 1940 that ‘it will be necessary to submit all your preliminary sketches, as well as finished works, for censorship’.   He had already been vetted by MI5 to ensure that he was a fit and proper person.  Several artists were turned down by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC)  because of their political affiliations.  The purpose of the WAAC was ostensibly to record the war, but also to save the lives of artists who might otherwise be drawn into the fighting.  The memory of the generation cut down in 1914-1918 was still very powerful.     The horrors of the Great War had been exposed by Paul Nash, Nevinson and Eric Kennington among others.  In 1917 Nevinson was told by War Office officials that his Paths of Glory could not be exhibited.  Preferring not to withdraw the picture, Nevinson put a strip of brown paper over the dead bodies and wrote ‘CENSORED’ over it.  Early in the Second World War, Eric Ravilious was refused permission to paint an admiral’s bicycle. 

 

It was inevitable that the closer an artist got to sensitive information, the more likely the censors would be to refuse any attempt to let the drawing see the light of day.  For all  that, while artists might have subjects suggested to them, in the main they felt free to draw what they liked.  The resulting work of art, however, might languish in a store somewhere unseen.  Much thought and discussion was given over to what constituted appropriate subject matter for war artists in the 1939-1945 conflict.  It was recognised that it would be different from that of 1914-1918: to begin with, war in that earlier conflict was much more static, while because of the development of the bomber in the 1930s, the Home Front had become a front line too. 

 

Richard Seddon, an artist who served in France in 1940, summed up the issue of what to paint: he wanted ‘not to report facts, nor mould opinion’; rather, he sought to paint action – the ‘battle when it began’, not the mundane nature of a soldier’s existence.  He ‘didn’t see soldiers peeling potatoes as war art’.  Later he would experience the true reality of war, struggling to capture the nature of an artillery bombardment on the ship he was sailing in, sketching as the shells fell around him,  but drawing a burned corpse was beyond him.  He had wanted to produce ‘a work of art that would be a silent cry of the human spirit.’  When it came to it, he could not face drawing so painful a subject.

 

In the later stages of the second war, during the Italian campaign, the war artist Edward Ardizzone found himself staying with a Guards brigade up in the Apennines.  He had crossed swords with a brigadier who voiced, in a truculent bellow, what the more cantankerous officers thought of those charged with recording the war in paint: ‘What’s an artist doing here?’ he roared.  It was a legitimate question rudely framed.  No doubt he would not have listened to a reasoned argument that, without the 6,000 or so examples of art produced by artists in the 1939-1945 war, our understanding of, and emotional response to, the war would be greatly impoverished.

 

 

Richard Knott’s book ‘The Sketchbook War’, published by The History Press, tells the story of nine war artists, including Eric Ravilious and Edward Ardizzone, whose work took them close to the front line in the 1939-1945 war.

 

 

 

Canadian Lancaster on a Yorkshire Hill



 

It was a bitterly cold night, temperatures hovering around freezing, but it was the thickening fog that made the night so dangerous for flying.  At dusk on Thursday 16 December 1943, nearly 500 aircraft, almost entirely Lancaster bombers, took off for Berlin.    The journey was a long one – more than seven hours − and meant penetrating deep into enemy territory.  The crews flew from dozens of airfields in eastern England, from north Yorkshire to southern Cambridgeshire, the first taking off soon after 4 p.m.  Bombs began to fall on the German capital some four hours later.  The Lancasters were expected back around midnight, mission accomplished.   In the event, more than 300 airmen died that night, almost half of them when the raid should have been over, victims of the winter weather.

 

You wonder whether they should have flown at all that night.  The Prime Minister had seemingly been unequivocal about flying in the teeth of bad weather.  ‘I am not pressing you to fight the weather as well as the Germans,’ Churchill had said, ‘Never forget that”.  That was how he had instructed Bomber Command’s Commander-in-Chief, Arthur Harris.  In the event, it proved just fine words since the reality was that the air war could not just be conducted on nights of fine weather, where visibility was clear and the stars bright.  For a start, operations to cities like Berlin needed long, dark winter nights, rather than the warm, short ones of summer.

 

In Yorkshire, in 1943, the December weather had been grim for days:  unremitting fog and frost.   In York, it was 26 degrees Fahrenheit on the 15th – six degrees of frost.  By the 16th, there was great pressure to get crews airborne again and thundering east to attack the German capital: there had been no ops since 2 December.   That particular Thursday was cold, sunless and misty, much as it had been for weeks.  The temperature was near freezing.  The weather forecast was for cloud to increase as the night wore on and the briefings made little attempt to disguise the fact that fog would be widespread.  The crews’ general attitude was one of ‘If we’re going, let’s get on with it – we might even get back before the fog really clamps down.’   Many aircrew were expecting the operation to be cancelled.    They were also aware of where they might be heading in the darkness and mist: 1850 gallons of aviation fuel? It had to be Berlin.

 

The first aircraft were due back soon after 11 pm – the round trip typically took about seven and a half hours.  At Linton-on-Ouse, the home of 426 Squadron, ground crew and WAAFs were anxiously waiting for the sound of returning aircraft.  By the time the thunder of engines was heard in the darkness, the fog was thick − the cloud base was desperately low, on occasions less than300 feet.  A significant number of pilots encountered major problems in locating their home airfield − or indeed any aerodrome at all.  Pilots grew increasingly concerned about fuel beginning to run out, and the nearby hillsides being shrouded in fog.   In the event, 43 aircraft crashed that night, the victims of the weather, not the Germans.   Sergeant Roger Coulombe, a Canadian pilot from 426 Squadron, survived the mayhem; he later described to me how, on a most tentative descent,  he saw ‘the black tower water tank of the station appearing right off my left wing tip.’

 

426 Squadron had 13 aircraft on the Berlin raid that night: seven completed the raid and returned safely; two were forced to return early with mechanical problems; two more were forced to bail out; and two crashed, one at Hunsingore, not far from RAF Marston Moor, and the other at Yearsley, a hilltop village perched 550 feet above the Vale of York.

 

The crew’s Canadian pilot, Squadron Thomas Kneale, had been a veteran of sixteen operations (and 29 years) and was commander of the squadron’s B flight.  Some months before – on 27 August 1943,  Kneale and his crew had taken Sergeant Coulombe as ‘second dickey’ on a raid on Nuremberg. Now, in December, Coulombe would survive, but Kneale and all but one of his crew would die.  It was a quarter to midnight when the Lancaster hit the ground, shattering the peace of this isolated spot.  Later, a desk-bound officer with a hard heart had judged the crash the result of ‘E of J’ – Error of Judgement on Thomas Kneale’s part.

 

All of this I was aware of when I wrote Black Night for Bomber Command, an account of that grim night.  But the story wasn’t over: the village held more memories than I knew.  The Lancaster’s initial point of impact was a straw stack – clipped by its starboard wing.  Then it careered and bounced, hitting a farm, a forge, ripping a hole in a hedge,  until it came to rest against a giant ash tree.  Two residents of the village – eight year olds when the accident happened −  remember the crash clearly.  One of them described how the fallen bomber was ‘more a collection of bits than an aircraft.’  The undercarriage was found some hundreds of yards away at the edge of a wood.   I had imagined that the six who died that night had been killed instantly.  In fact Squadron Leader Kneale had survived for some thirty minutes: he and the other crew members had been pulled from the wreck and taken to the nearby Wombwell Arms.  Kneale died in the pub’s kitchen.

 

I’ve revisited the site of the crash several times this year: once on the 68th anniversary, in a period of weather reminiscent of what came to be known as ‘Black Thursday’ – a proper wintry chill.   I knew that the owner of the house where the aircraft came to rest laid a wreath on the site each year on the very day, and I wanted to pay my respects.  Much earlier in the year I had been there for the dedication of the plaque to the crew’s memory – it comprised a single Lancaster and the men’s names in metalled relief.  It was a glorious May day of summer promise, blue sky, wonderful light, the most vibrant visibility, as if to reinforce what the air crews had had to face that grim night.  It was a gala occasion: the Canadian flag flew, Kirkbymoorside Brass Band played its heart out, and some120 people squeezed into the little church.  A colonel from the Canadian High Commission was there.  Most moving of all were the assembled families of the men who died − they had all come over from Canada.   One was the namesake of the dead pilot.  We sang the Canadian national anthem.

 

A few weeks later I took my ex-97 Squadron father-in-law there (his pilot had been a Canadian too).  We went into the church to look at the plaque and  read the visitors’ book.  It had recently been signed by the onetime girl friend of one of the dead crew, her mind still bright with memories of the young man she had lost.   On 16 December, when I visited again, the weather was freezing, the trees bare, but I could see across the Vale of York below.  Yearsley’s one street was empty and silent, although in the distance I could hear gunfire (rabbit hunting I guessed) and a single aeroplane engine.  The church door was locked.

 

When a story seems to be over, it never truly is: there are always traps for the unwary researcher, I discovered.   I knew that there had been one survivor, the rear gunner, Sergeant Charlie Fortier.  It never occurred to me that he might have provided me with a potential witness to the dark events of that night.  By 2011 it was too late:  he had died in September 2004, at much the same time as I began work on the book that became Black Night for Bomber Command.   Later, after the service, I shook hands with his daughter and we stood in a Yearsley garden drinking tea close to the spot where her father had returned from Berlin in a nightmare of fog, fire and twisted metal.  The crew’s rear gunner, his survival was courtesy of the severed tail-plane which avoided the fatal collision with the ash tree.  That May afternoon we could see for forty miles down across the Vale of York, bathed in the brightest of sunlight.  Like many airmen, Charlie Fortier was reluctant to talk about his war.  His log book entry for the night of 16 December 1943 is a model of taciturnity: ‘Ops to Berlin, seven hours, crashed in England.’   That summer afternoon in England, his daughter remembered her father and imagined him clinging to life on that wild night, while I reflected on those other men lost on Black Thursday, and how each of the other crash sites merited a similar listing of names and a community’s recognition of its past.

 

Richard Knott’s most recent book is ‘Flying Boats of the Empire’ published in 2011 by Robert Hale.  ‘Black Night for Bomber Command’ was published by Pen & Sword in 2007.  He is grateful to David Smith and other inhabitants of Yearsley for updating the story of Lancaster DS 837.  

 

 

 

Sacked by Churchill


Sacked by Churchill: the Man From the BBC

John Reith and Winston Churchill could not have been more different: Reith was tall, puritanical, Presbyterian, while Churchill was round, hedonistic and untroubled by religion.   Separated in age by some fifteen years – the wartime leader was fifteen years the elder  − their paths first crossed in the Great War, though Churchill was unaware of it.  An officer with the 13th Hussars, he was eating what was undoubtedly a damned good lunch in a hotel in France, dressed in khaki.  Reith had just been to the dentist.  Subsequently he wrote: ‘I could not know that a quarter of a century later my fate was to rest in his hands.’

They went their separate ways: Churchill metamorphosed from soldier to government minister; Reith was wounded (it left him with a deep scar on his left cheek); lived for a while in Canada, and eventually applied for the Managing Directorship of the newly devised BBC.  His measured and supremely confident letter of application is dated 22 October 1922.   From the moment when the BBC began broadcasting in 1923, the two men’s paths were on a collision course.  Reith was on a career trajectory to the stars, it seemed, while Churchill would soon enter his wilderness years through the 1930s.

In time, the positions would be reversed: Reith would leave the BBC for the last time in tears and spend the rest of his life reflecting on what might have been, and bitter about missing out on the preeminence he felt he was owed – a poisonous  kind of regret – while Churchill emerged from the shadows just when it seemed his time had gone.  Given their fundamental differences in personality, their separate outlook on the world, and their places on different sides of the political divide, a simmering antipathy was always likely.  In the event, Churchill thought of Reith as ‘Wuthering Heights’; the tall Scotsman thought Churchill ‘a horrid fellow’ and ‘a bloody shit.’  When the war was over, Lord Reith of Stonehaven, as he had become, embarked on a correspondence with the former Prime Minister which bordered on the pathetic.  That it should come to this!

The General Strike of 1926 began the feud.  The BBC was exercised by the challenge of maintaining impartiality.  Reith believed that Churchill, as the responsible government minister, was trying to treat the BBC – his BBC – as ‘an offshoot’ of The British Gazette, the government sponsored newspaper designed to fill the void left by the country’s strike-hit newpapers.  The minister had tried to flatter the BBC man: ‘He said he thought I had about the biggest job in the country.’  Reith was programmed to warm to such words: he did not lack self-belief.  Indeed, before the outbreak of war in 1939, he believed himself fit to be ‘dictator of Britain’.

Reith was not a man it was easy to warm to: he admired aspects of Nazi efficiency and, once he had left the BBC, he believed he had ‘lost caste and gone down in the world’.  He was dismissive of many in this country with whom he dealt: Ramsay Macdonald was ‘very gaga’; Kingsley Wood was ‘a bally crook’ and a ‘self-seeking little cad’; Hore-Belisha showed ‘such conceit’;  Beaverbrook was ‘a dreadful man’.  For his own part, Reith was never popular – ‘a self advertising ass’  thought Sir John Simon; the diarist Chips Channon did not like him, while Harold Nicholson resented the fact that Reith had terminated his contract with the BBC because he had praised James Joyce’s Ulysses

Later, the dispute centred on India.  Churchill furiously opposed any suggestion of Indian self-government; Reith thought his views too political to be trusted to the radio waves – and the result was that Churchill resented the fact that Reith had ‘kept him off the wireless for eight years’.  The two men were on opposite sides during the Abdication crisis in 1936.  Churchill supported Edward VIII (as Roy Jenkins put it, ‘he was responsive to the new king’s boyish charm’), while Sir John Reith was on hand to soothe and calm the stuttering King George VI before his first nerve-racking broadcast to the nation, a looming presence checking the microphone and offering avuncular advice.

As war approached, Reith found himself cast loose in a troubled new world.  On 3 June 1938 he was summoned to 10 Downing Street to be told that he was ‘to go to Imperial Airways as chairman and “tomorrow” at that.’  The airline had been subject to a damning report by a government inquiry, and Reith was seen as the safe pair of hands to sort out the mess.  He was deeply unhappy, exchanging his plush BBC office for a scruffy, down-at-heel pad over a furniture warehouse near Victoria Station.  So this is Head Office!  His gloom was compounded when the first decision he was required to make in his new role was authorising the expenditure of £238 on passengers’ lavatories at Croydon Airport.

Never enthusiastic about his role at Imperial Airways, his time there was fraught, not least because the much vaunted Empire flying boat fleet was regularly decimated by crashes and mishaps.  Trouble always seemed a moment away.  Just before the war broke out,  Reith was in Canada with his family and, while visiting the World’s Fair in New York, he was summarily presented with a subpoena in connection with the ongoing court case about the loss of the flying boat Cavalier which had crashed into the sea near Bermuda  Soon after, with the war about to start, Reith left his family on the quayside in New York and sailed back alone across the Atlantic in the Aquitania.  He agonised about whether he was doing the right thing and ‘knelt down in the bathroom and asked God to show me the way’.  The war had already begun when he arrived in England, and civil aviation was virtually dead.  So therefore was his job.  Later in the year, and against advice, he returned across the Atlantic to bring his family home.

Reith became a member of the Chamberlain government (as Minister of Information), was parachuted into a safe seat (Southampton, unopposed).  He fumed at what he saw as the decline in his fortunes.  This would-be ‘dictator’ had dreamed of Cabinet status.  At other times he had seen himself as Ambassador in Washington, governor general of South Africa − even Prime Minister.  When Churchill came to power in May 1940, his fate was sealed.  ‘They tell me you’re difficult to work with,’ Churchill said.  He survived for a while, shunted into Transport, but eventually he was sacked on 21 February 1942, by letter brought by a courier on a motor bicycle (‘I am very sorry to tell you…’).   His reply was terse, eloquent in what it left unsaid.  ‘I wish,’ Reith concluded, ‘I could have been of more help to you personally in your tremendous and splendid task.’

When the war ended he wrote to Churchill a much longer letter which spoke of his huge sadness at the way he had been treated.  Churchill was conciliatory – ‘I am unfeignedly sorry for the pain which you felt,’ he wrote, reminding the grief-stricken Reith that he himself had been out of office for 11 years.   Reith, however, was inconsolable: ‘Here’s someone who worked faithfully and well for you, but whom you broke and whose life you ruined,’ he wrote.  He even regretted his pre-war career: ‘I am sorry I ever had anything to do with broadcasting.  And I am sorry you have disliked me.’  His letters, written in the throes of bitter regret, give a rare insight into the wounded heart of a man who could not forgive the world for giving him less than he believed he deserved.  Churchill, no doubt would have shaken his head, refilled a glass and blown cigar smoke at the ceiling, without a glimmer of doubt that he had treated Reith fairly and honestly.

Richard Knott is the author of ‘Black Night for Bomber Command’ and ‘Flying Boats of the Empire’.  This article is the first of a planned series focused on the men Churchill fired during the Second World War.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Saga of Flying Boats


THE ‘SAGA’ OF FLYING BOATS

 

 

Flying Boats?  Do you or your relations have memories of flying boats in peace or wartime? If so, please write to…

 

This inquiry in the October 2008 issue of Saga Magazine was tentative, proffered in hope rather than expectation.  It appeared under the ‘Seeking’ subheading in the Reunions section and felt like throwing a message in a bottle into deepest ocean.  I had planned that my book about the Empire Flying Boats would focus on the people whose lives were touched by the existence of these remarkable aircraft: pilots and passengers, aircrew and aviation pioneers.  I wondered how many of them scoured the small ads in Saga.  Or whether I was too late and the time for detailed memories had passed.

 

The response was heart-warming: some 125 replies fell through my letterbox, two or three a day for months after the notice first appeared.  The last of them arrived in July 2009.  Often, the response was from someone who had chanced upon a copy of the magazine in a doctor’s waiting room, or who had been passed it by a solicitous friend (‘Didn’t you once travel by flying boat?’)  With many of them, a protracted correspondence followed.  Photographs – invariably black and white –  arrived: of Sunderland flying boats flying over the China Seas in the 1950s; of someone’s mother perched coyly on the wing of an Empire Flying Boat in Durban before the war; of the earliest flying boats looking unnervingly fragile, and sometimes just plain broken.  There were diaries and letters too, describing flights from Southampton to Karachi via Marseilles and the Sea of Galilee in October 1939, a month after war had broken out in Europe; to Sydney on board the converted Sunderland Henley with Captains Powell and Mackenzie starting in November 1947; and a journey to Hong Kong in the same month.

My father-in-law had been a navigator with BOAC flying to the Far East at the same time, and I imagined him passing leaflets describing speed, weather conditions and expected times of arrival to these very same people all those years ago.

 

No Empire Flying Boats exist now: the first was launched in 1936 and all but one of the 42 built had been scrapped – or destroyed by wartime action or peacetime catastrophe – by 1947.  In the pre-war years, flying Imperial Airways in an Empire was unparalleled luxury: slow and stately progress at a height from which the detail of the landscape could be tenderly scanned.  An aura of imposing grandeur surrounded the pilots who looked down on the world from a capacious flight deck.  Passengers strolled the promenade deck and wondered at the game galloping on the African veldt below, spooked by the thundering leviathan in the sky.  This was travel as it should be: slow enough to savour the experience, an easy rhythm to the day, with languid descents for lunch, tea and dinner on a series of lightly disturbed stretches of water, and a night stop in a Nile houseboat in Cairo or a fort in Sharjah on the Persian Gulf.

 

Behind the apparent ease and elegance of the flights to Bermuda, India, Rangoon or Australia, there was danger too.   By May 1940,  less than four years since the first flying boat, Canopus, was launched, 11 Empires had been lost, in a series of mishaps.  Flying boats crashed with unsettling regularity: one hit a French mountain in a snowstorm;  another came to grief in the Atlantic, downed by a loss of power caused by icing; a third careered into the water when alighting, its pilot confused by the glassy nature of the surface; a fourth hit debris as it tried to take off … Behind the façade of effortless travel, politicians fumed, lawyers rubbed their hands and Imperial Airways’ Chairman, Sir John Reith, was issued with a subpoena on his visit to the World’s Fair in New York in 1939.  A further 15 were destroyed in the war years, ten of them during 1942.   One of my correspondents was the daughter of the Radio Officer aboard a flying boat lost off the coast of West Africa in September of that year.  She sent me copies of papers relating to the loss of that aircraft and eventually we met in a coffee bar in Sheffield where she loaned me two precious photographs, one of her father and the other of the monument in Bathurst – now Banjul – that commemorated the loss of the poor souls on board Clare. 

 

My correspondents were not confined to passengers or crew.  One letter was from Cyril Harrison, an ‘apprentice detail fitter’, working at the Short Brothers’ Rochester factory in the 1930s.  His job was to help finalise the flying boat’s construction; because of his slight boyish figure he could clamber over the wings, in slippered feet,  avoiding any damage to the nearly completed aircraft.    I received letters from three members of the same family, all of whom were ex-Short Brothers’ workers.    Later I received a photograph of a painting that Cyril had completed illustrating one of the Rochester flying boat workshops, a hive of industrial activity, all pulleys, lathes and cacophonous noise.    He had subsequently sold the painting and lost touch with its whereabouts.  We later met at the Medway Archives in Rochester and he was reunited with his lost artwork.

Another lost artwork provided my book’s cover.  One correspondent wrote to me about a picture by the war artist R Vivian Pitchforth.  It shows Sunderland flying boats at Mount Batten in Plymouth during the war.  I loved it – so evocative of an age.  I had some difficulty in tracking down the original and finally discovered that the War Artists’ Advisory Committee had commissioned it in 1942, and then, when the war was over, had despatched it – with a harking back to imperial largesse – to the art gallery in Bendigo, Australia.   Now my book had a cover, thanks to Bendigo Art Gallery’s warm-hearted curator, and, of course, my Saga correspondent.

 

I never failed to be excited when a Saga letter arrived.  Opening the envelope I wondered what the story would be: a wartime flight from Durban to Cairo; an awed description of the moment of take-off (white water past the windows); a scribbled note commenting on the great age of both correspondent and aircraft – on a 1932 photograph of a flying boat; a set of newspaper cuttings from the daughter of the Chief Steward on the SS Kensington Court, rescued by flying boat after being sunk by a U boat early in the war…

 

The publication of Flying Boats of the Empire came too late for some correspondents.  While some were relatively young, others were less so, and several passed away before they could set their eyes on what their collective memories had contrived, the book itself, with Pitchforth’s arresting illustration on the cover.  After all, well over two years had passed since I had first sought help from those with stories of flying boats to tell.

 

Frequently I was moved by the determination to tell stories from the past, moments in personal histories that meant so much.  I became used to, but never bored by, those statements which recalled what seemed to many, the most golden of times, when the preferred way to travel was at ten thousand feet above the Murchison Falls, or the Bay of Corinth, in what was, for a brief decade, the cutting edge of aviation technology.    For those voices from the past, I am indebted to the living archive that is Saga’s readership.  It was that collective experience and humanity which breathed life into my book.

 

 

Richard Knott’s book Flying Boats of the Empire was published at the end of January 2011 by Robert Hale. 

 

 

 

 

                                                                        

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